When Names Were Heroes, Part 2

Jun 23rd 2011

Yesterday I described how baby name homages to heroes have been disappearing. Today, some thoughts on what that change says about our attitudes and naming culture.

In part, the shift away from hero naming represents the triumph of fashion in baby names. As sound and style play ever larger roles in naming decisions, homages have to yield. Note, for instance, the decline of "Juniors," and the way grandparents are increasingly honored with middle names or initials rather than direct namesakes. We still love our parents (and ourselves), but style comes first.

Cynicism about public figures appears to play a role too. We do name babies after presidents today, but we wait until their history is fully written, just in case. Ronald Reagan's death inspired far more little Reagans than his election did. Similarly, names like Ava, Harlow and Lana take their spark from celebrities who have moved beyond scandal-prone reality into Hollywood myth.

What's more, a Golden Age Hollywood name is seen as cool and retro, while a modern celebrity association seems to embarrass today's parents. Even when a baby name appears to be ripped from the headlines, they'll disavow it: "OUR Isabella has NOTHING to do with Twilight," they rush to assure you. That's quite a contrast to the generation of little Shirleys who were cheerfully, forthrightly named after Shirley Temple.

Perhaps, then, it's not just hero names but frank, public admiration itself that's out of style. The homage names that do still pop up take different forms, like naming after crime victims. Compare two different figures who were big in the news in 2009: Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Caylee Anthony. Captain Sullenberger had the word "hero" permanently attached to his name for saving the lives of hundreds of passengers on a doomed airplane. Ms. Anthony, a toddler, was tragically murdered. The naming effect was a thousand more Caylees, and scarcely a Sully to be seen.

In fact, using a baby name as a public expression of empathy is more common than ever. Crime victims of past eras didn't have a naming impact like Caylee (or Laci, or Natalee). Strange as it may sound, today we'd rather link our children to victims than to heroes.


By Guestie (not verified)
June 23, 2011 5:37 PM

Er, maybe nobody's naming their kids Sully because he's a giant furry blue guy in Monsters Inc. I don't think you can extrapolate "We'd rather name our kids after victims than heroes!" from that.

By alr as guest (not verified)
June 23, 2011 6:53 PM

I typically think you're spot on, Laura, but I have to agree with Guestie that the "naming after victims" theory feels like a stretch to me. Caylee was a cute little girl - which makes it a lot easier to envision on your tiny baby girl than the name of an older man. Plus, as you just stated earlier in your post, it feels to me as though people care a lot more about the sound and style as they do the public figure who 'inspired' (I use that loosely) the name. Were the parents who chose the name Caylee truly using it as an "expression of empathy?" I highly doubt it. I'd bet they just heard the name and liked it - victim vs hero status aside.

By Anna S (not verified)
July 1, 2011 2:32 PM

Um, what happened to the most recent post (June 30th?) about -son names!? The Name That Launched a Thousand Female Sons?

And what happened with all the comments to the present post; the count was 60-something, now it's 2!?

By hyz nli (not verified)
July 1, 2011 4:22 PM

Anna, yep, definitely something strange going on....

By Anna S (not verified)
July 1, 2011 5:41 PM


Thanks! I was beginning to worry if it was just me being stuck in a weird time loop or something!?

By Kern (not verified)
July 1, 2011 6:08 PM

Me too! I'd just posted a long plea for name help and was thinking pregnancy brain had me dreaming it.

By namer (not verified)
July 1, 2011 6:29 PM

Uh-oh. What's going on?

By izzy nli (not verified)
July 1, 2011 7:07 PM

I was wondering if i was going crazy, glad to know its not just me/my computer!!

By I don't remember my name (not verified)
July 1, 2011 9:46 PM

Drat. Hope this gets fixed soon.

By North Face Outlet (not verified)
July 2, 2011 4:49 AM

The article is very convincing

July 2, 2011 1:37 PM

This is very strange. I hope it wasn't taken down because of a negative comment.

Quick question: What is your first impression when you hear the name Cordelia?

By Anna S (not verified)
July 2, 2011 1:43 PM

@Eleanor - the Cordelia character from Buffy.

July 2, 2011 1:50 PM


Cordelia=King Lear

By mk (not verified)
July 2, 2011 5:45 PM

Kern: If I am remembering your post correctly, I like Annelise a lot and no nickname is needed. My friend's daughter is named Annelise and she is just called Annelise. Cora is pretty-I don't know how popular it is.

Eleanor: Cordelia=Shakespeare to me.

July 2, 2011 10:38 PM

the disappearing post and comments had me confused too!

@Kern, I don't think I saw your post but I love love Cordelia. It was on my short list for my Astrid but in the end she just didn't look like a Cordelia so it got vetoed. My two strongest references are King Lear and Buffy but I don't think either are a bad thing.

Re Anneliese. A friend has a 9 month old Anneliese. She is a real cutie and goes by the full Anneliese.

By Alli (not verified)
July 2, 2011 11:14 PM

Eleanor - I don't have a strong connection that comes to mind when I hear Cordelia. If pressed, I would say Shakespeare, but Cordelia just sounds like a pretty, feminine, and a little quirky name to me.

What is going on with the missing blog post?

By izzy nli (not verified)
July 2, 2011 11:23 PM

@Eleanor: I agree with Alli, there is no strong connection for me. i just think it is a pretty name, that would seem darling on a little girl and would grow very well.

July 3, 2011 3:41 PM

interesting names from my local listings: VIVIENNE - CARALINA - MELANIE - CORMAC - SKYLY - BRAYE - RIANA - AGUSTUS - FRANK - SABRE

July 3, 2011 4:07 PM

It's not just the blog, the entries to the Namepedia entered between 6/23 and 7/1 are also missing.

By jomo (not verified)
July 7, 2011 2:22 PM

Just read the following in the Sacramento Bee concerning the basketball player Jimmer Fredette from BYU: "While it’s also true that there is only one Jimmer, at least until his name began appearing frequently on birth certificates in Utah, Fredette doesn’t need the added burden of lifting a franchise."

I'm wondering if the author has any proof of the rise in Jimmer namesakes or is assuming that there will be, just like the media assumed there would be a rise in Baracks following the presidential election.

Is there a way to find this out now or do I need to wait until 2012 to find out 2011's names?

By North Face Clearance (not verified)
July 17, 2011 11:52 PM

Zhou Ya made almost can not remember him. Probably because it is hard to want to bury a past, so those things were to be buried together, clean, almost without trace. Of course, it is almost. Zhou

By Alison Loat (not verified)
July 18, 2011 1:44 PM

As someone with this name, I must point out that Alison (or Allison or Alyson or Allyson!) stands out as an exception to this trend. I believe we peaked in the early 1980s, and the name originated as a diminutive of Alice.

In other "son of" news - Ben, which is "son of" in Hebrew, is also a name growing in popularity in recent years.

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